Before the introduction of CGI, stop motion was the special effect of choice for big blockbusters. This time consuming method brought big monsters and strange lands to life and it wowed generations of moviegoers with its scrappy inventiveness. Although it’s only sparingly used nowadays, stop motion still has a type of charm which CGI just can’t replicate.
10. The Lost World (1925)
Stop motion has been around since the late 19th century, but it was Willis O’Brien’s special effects artistry which managed to blend live actors with animated miniatures in a manner which, for the time, was as seamless as the effects in any modern CGI blockbuster. O’Brien was a former farmhand, fur-trapper and cowboy who turned artist and gradually built up his own animation technique using wire and clay. Under the wing of inventor Thomas Edison, O’Brien perfected his method over successive short films between 1915 and 1925, one of which was The Lost World. This movie paved the way for many entries on this list and its impact has never been diminished. The special effects sequences are captivatingly framed and lit, and O’Brien’s dinosaurs would influence animators for decades.
9. The Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)
The dollhouse world of Wes Anderson seems like a natural fit for stop motion, and the director put his miniaturist skills to use in 2009 when he adapted Roald Dahl’s classic The Fantastic Mr Fox. The children’s book follows a family of foxes headed up by the patriarch Mr Fox (of course), whose love of larceny gets him in trouble with three very dangerous chicken ranchers. The men decide the only way to deal with him is to dig into his home and eradicate all of the vermin inside. Each scene is filled with beautifully made set pieces and almost every whisker seems to vibrate with life.
8. The Terminator (1984)
James Cameron’s sci-fi classic The Terminator was full of cutting edge special effects. A cyborg assassin (Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakout role) is sent back in time from the year 2029 to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor; whose son will one day become a saviour against machines. Kyle Reese, a soldier from the future, is also sent back in time to protect Sarah. The most memorable stop motion scene comes at the end of the movie when the denuded Terminator endoskeleton emerges from a burning truck and chases after Sarah Connor and Kyle Reece. To make it easier on the animators to incorporate the special effects, they gave Arnold Schwarzenegger’s flesh-and-blood version of the character a limp in the lead up to the scenes so they could marry the movements easier. The Terminator remains a relentless sci-fi thrill ride and the emergence of the fleshless cyborg from a blanket of fire is a truly powerful movie moment.
7. Coraline (2009)
Coraline took seven years to complete and was one of the first stop motion pictures to be shot in 3D. The story is a mesmerizing and truly creepy tale of a girl, Coraline, who discovers an alternate world with a new mom and dad who will spoil her. But it soon turns out that Other Mother is in fact a soul-stealing witch and Coraline must rely on her wits to escape and also free the other trapped souls. Each character had sets of interchangeable mouths and other features that offer a combined potential of more than 200,000 facial expressions, and some were even manufactured through the use of black-and-white 3D printers. Alone the characters could be mistaken for dolls, but on screen they became unique, lively and as soulful as real people.
6. Chicken Run (2000)
A feathered parody of The Great Escape, Chicken Run is set on a Yorkshire chicken ranch that looks more like a German POW camp. Here, notorious failed escapee Ginger continuously gets put in solitary confinement after her repeated attempts at escape. It isn’t long before a brassy Yank rooster (Mel Gibson) appears and offers to teach the chickens to fly to freedom – even though the only flying he’s ever done is out of a circus cannon. Surely enough, comedy ensues when panicky chickens all try to learn to fly so they can flee the farm before they are turned into chicken pot pies. The sharp funny script, brilliant voice acting and sheer ingenious stop motion on display in every frame makes Chicken Run an animated classic.
5. Robocop (1987)
Sci-fi satire Robocop brought the gigantic robotic law enforcer ED-209 to life using a mixture of full-scale props and miniature effects. Set in a crime-ridden Detroit in the near future, the movie centers on a murdered police officer who is brutally murdered by a gang of criminals and subsequently revived by the mega-corporation Omni Consumer Products (OCP) as a superhuman cyborg law enforcer. Overseen by visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett, ED-209 is a menacing killing machine with a puppy-like, cumbersome awkwardness.
4. King Kong (1933)
The second entrant on our list created by Willis O’Brien, King Kong is perhaps the ultimate giant monster movie and O’Brien’s most renowned work. The film tells of a gigantic, prehistoric, island-dwelling ape called Kong who dies in an attempt to possess a beautiful young woman. Kong, the ‘Giant Terror Gorila’ was brought to life with four scale puppets of varying sizes, each built out of aluminium, latex, rubber and rabbit fur for his stop-motion sequences. A full-size hand and head, chest and neck were constructed for close-up scenes. Though he may be a fearsome beast capable of battling dinosaurs or flinging square-jawed men off a log like a handful of ants, Kong is fatally wounded when he falls off the top of the Empire State Building. It’s an iconic movie moment that still tugs at the heartstrings – not bad for special effects which are more than 75 years old.
3. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The second movie of the Star Wars franchise owes a lot to its stop motion animation effects. Phil Tippett oversaw the production of several stop-motion animated scenes in the sequel; most notably, the extraordinary battle on Hoth. During this unforgettable sequence, four-legged AT-ATs menacingly trudge through ice and snow. Employing a technique Tippett later dubbed go-motion, the amazing effects were accomplished by smoothing a touch of motion blur to each frame. These action scenes blended live-action footage with animation in a manner that was, for its time, truly astonishing.
2. Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Jason and the Argonauts features an almost perfect interaction between animated puppets and sword-waving actors, making it one of the most remarkable special effects movies in cinema history. No surprise really with stop motion guru Ray Harryhausen overseeing the movie’s special effects work. The Greek mythological movie follows Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. He and his crew fight numerous stop motion effect creatures which include the living statue Talos, two harpies and the Hyrda, before they sail through The Clashing Rocks to face off against a group of menacing skeletons. For one of cinema’s most iconic action scenes, Harryhausen spent more than four months carefully planning and animating the sequence, ensuring that the movements of the seven skeletons’ shields and swords precisely matched the actions of the live-action footage. The work definitely paid off – Jason and the Argonauts became a huge hit and the special effects are still breathtaking.
1. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare before Christmas (1993)
The Nightmare Before Christmas was a pioneer of the stop motion animation industry. The film follows the misadventures of Jack Skellington, Halloween Town’s beloved Pumpkin King, who has become bored with the same annual routine of frightening people in the “real world.” When Jack accidentally stumbles on Christmas Town with all its bright colors and warm spirits, he gets a new lease on life. He plots to bring Christmas under his control by kidnapping Santa Claus and taking over the role. The musical animation is a testament to what stop motion is capable of. The weird and wonderful residents of Halloween Town and the rest of Tim Burton’s imaginative genius (although it’s worth noting he didn’t actually direct the movie – Henry Selick, director of Coraline, was the one behind the camera) are brought to life in painstaking miniaturised detail. Although the movements of the characters may not be seamless, the stiff, strobing effect only serves to make them more old-school spooky. Combined with numerous memorable scenes and so many catchy tunes, The Nightmare Before Christmas is one stop motion movie which will never be overshadowed by any other type of movie magic.